By now, if you have been reading my reviews regularly, you probably have figured out my general taste in movies. It would come as no surprise that I am not really a fan of overly sentimental or cheesy films; as a rule, I prefer my movies to have a little more darkness or edge to them. If it is all predictable, feel-good nonsense, I’m probably no all that interested. Take you sappy and whitewashed story and sell it to someone else. No hard feelings.
There are two very big exceptions, however, to this general rule – two genres where I don’t mind where the schlock is heaped on and where a by-the numbers script doesn’t really bother me. I hold animated films, for example, to a very different standard for my enjoyment. That’s probably a given – if the target demographic for a film is children, your standards are understandably different. The other major exception are sports movies; if the central premise of your film is about how a sports team overcame the odds or how sports brought people together, so can slather as much cheese and inspirational mumbo-jumbo as you want and I’ll eat it up with a spoon. Sports fanaticism isn’t all that rational, so I suppose it makes sense that I wouldn’t follow my normal rules when it comes to sports movies.
If you were trying to craft a movie that would appeal especially to me, you really couldn’t do much better than putting Jon Hamm in a movie about baseball. Those two elements alone tap into what my brain is thinking about at least 25% of the day. So it should come as no surprise that Million Dollar Arm is right in my wheelhouse. Despite its Disneyfication of a true story and the absolute predictability of the story, I really enjoyed Million Dollar Arm and walked out of the cinema smiling. Of course, the film could have been on mute for two hours and I still would have been relatively happy with just watching Hamm on the big screen and debating which outfit he was wearing that I most enjoyed. Like I said, I was totally in the tank for this movie.
Million Dollar Arm is loosely based on real life events: a struggling sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) hatches the idea of going to India to find cricket bowlers and converting them into major league baseball pitchers. Not only is India a relatively untapped market for baseball talent, but it brings with it the potential of billions of new fans for the game if successful. Bernstein and his business partner (The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi) hold a contest in India and discover two contenders who have potential – Rinku Singh (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal) – and bring them back to America. Adapting to a game that they have never played in a country far away from their families proves to be more challenging than Bernstein expected and requires him to reevaluate his priorities. Lake Bell also co-stars as Brenda, Bernstein’s neighbor and potential love interest because all of these movies have to have a girl in them in some capacity.
Despite the fact that Million Dollar Arm was practically dreamed up in a laboratory as my perfect date movie, I can be objective enough to say that it isn’t a great film. Sure, I enjoyed it, but I have a critical enough eye to recognize that the film was flawed. Even for a sports film, it felt pretty generic and a little formulaic; if you have seen more than a few films in this genre, then you have basically seen Million Dollar Arm. The ending was pretty much preordained from the beginning, even if you didn’t know the real story that the film is based on. I actually only had a vague familiarity with the actual “Million Dollar Arm” competition, but I had no doubt about the journey that the film was taking me on or the final destination. That in and of itself isn’t bad as long as you enjoy the ride, which I basically did. But the film is definitely slow in some part and the story could have been told more efficiently. There’s enough filler in the movie that it’s noticeable; once you have mined what you can from the fish out of water angle of the story, you should move on to new material. Instead, Million Dollar Arm chooses to stick with things a beat too long to really make sure that they have squeezed everything that they can from it. I could have easily trimmed twenty minutes from the film that I wouldn’t have missed.
A lot of the enjoyment that I derived from the film came from the work of the actors. In his first leading man role, Hamm makes you care about a character that you really are given no reason to care about from the story. There are shades of Don Draper in Hamm’s performance – an agent is, after all, something of a sales man – but his performance is different enough that it doesn’t just feel like a rehash of the small screen role that made Hamm famous. I think that Hamm can do more interesting and exciting things, but Million Dollar Arm is a safe step for his movie career and as a real life baseball fan Hamm makes perfect sense in the part. His presence certainly elevates the film in my opinion, but I may be biased. Indian actors Sharma, Patel and Pitobash all do a nice job in their roles, though the film seems less interested in telling their story and more interested in Hamm’s Bernstein and his evolution. Despite their slight marginalization from the film, they are very effective at depicting the loneliness and alienation that these men must have felt in their attempt to become MLB pitchers. Lake Bell is fine, though it appears that the only direction that she was given was to be very positive and charming. She does that easily, but it is clear that the Brenda character is there only to serve as a benchmark for Bernstein’s evolution.
Some other thoughts:
- The film doesn’t tell the whole story of Singh and Patel; if you are interested in what happened afterward, The Daily Beast has a story on the aftermath.
- Grantland also did a short film about Bernstein; Bill Simmons, the founder of Grantland, is executive producer of the film. Simmons and Hamm sat down for a chat about baseball movies.
- Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin also have small parts in the movie, though the later mostly sleeps through the film (literally).
- Million Dollar Arm is definitely a family friendly and sanitized look at foreigners trying to break into Major League Baseball. For a more realistic (and better) look at this story, check out Sugar. It’s one of the best sports movies that I’ve ever seen and deviates from the normal formula.
- I have yet to see a movie that is set in India that makes me even remotely want to visit India. I’m sure it is a beautiful country and has a lot to offer, but one look at how crowded it is and all the traffic and I’m out.
- Jon Hamm is playing in the legends and celebrity softball game during MLB All-Star weekend. Now I just need to figure out how to pay for a trip to Minnesota. Maybe I’ll start a Kickstarter.
- Jon Hamm in aviator sunglasses might be my new favorite Jon Hamm:
Million Dollar Arm is a feel good movie that you will probably like despite its faults, especially if you already like baseball and/or Jon Hamm. You can tell that it is a Disney movie, but despite its corniness and predictability it still managed to win the cold, dark cynic in me over. The film isn’t an instant classic, but it is just pleasant and entertaining enough to be a relatively satisfying movie experience. It is a simplified and sanitized version of a real story, but a decent sports movie is like comfort food – you just like it and it makes you happy. Million Dollar Arm made me happy and that’s enough for me. Sometimes even I enjoy a little schmaltz.
Million Dollar Arm opens nationwide today.